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Looney Finds A Second Home in EJES

Looney uses connection with students to make a difference

There is no place Tonya Looney would rather be than inside the hallways of East Jackson Elementary School. During the school year, Looney spends nearly 12 hours each day inside the building, serving as a paraprofessional and the After School Co-Director. It is a place she holds near and dear to her heart. It is a place where she says she is called to be every single day. 

“I cannot imagine not getting up every morning and seeing this school and seeing these kids,” Looney said. “I cannot imagine doing anything else. It is my home. You walk up and down the halls. It is fun and I want to make sure everything is prepared for the next day. What can I do for these kids?”

Looney, who was raised in Jackson County, has served as a paraprofessional inside East Jackson Elementary since the school opened in the early 2000s. The thing that has kept her there and keeps her coming back for more each day are the students and the ability to help them in whatever they need.

“I know I am here for a reason and I can communicate with the kids,” Looney said. “A lot of the things they have gone through, I’ve gone through in my life. So I know how they are feeling.”

The connection with the students is something Looney carries past their time in elementary school. She says she enjoys seeing former students who have graduated and are now in adulthood, to the point where her former students have invited her to their wedding.

“I am very honored, very humbled,” Looney said. “I pray I make an impact on somebody, in any single way. Anyone in the school. I want to be the light, the person who they can come to if they need something or need to talk.”

Looney was named the Support Person of the Year for EJES this past fall. She said the honor was unexpected and humbling. 

“I was so surprised. It was the shock of my life,” Looney said. “I have never, in my whole life, gotten anything like that. I had never been recognized for something like that in my whole life. It was hard for me to fathom and comprehend that it had happened.”

The honor was much deserved, says principal Allyson Pennington.

“Ms. Looney personifies East Jackson Elementary,” Pennington said. “She loves this place. It is her home, it is where she gets her energy. She pours her heart and soul into our students. She is a happy face each morning for our students. She is a positive force and is always cheering everyone on. She is that person that would do anything to support anybody.”

Looney admits being a paraprofessional is not easy, but the reward of working with educators and students is well worth it each day. 

“It is a huge responsibility. I don’t think people understand what goes on in a school until they work in here, your feet are in the school. But it is a much rewarding job,” Looney said. “You don’t do this for the money. You come for the kids and see their faces and watch them bloom.”

Looney said one of the ways she works with students to watch them bloom is to teach kindness and respect to one another. 

“They need to be taught kindness and to demonstrate kindness,” Looney said. “I started this mentoring thing in after school, where I take a second grader and put them with a first grader or kindergartener. I take a fifth grader and they go help a kindergartner. They love it. It makes them feel needed and makes them feel good.”

Moving toward summer vacation, Looney said she will miss being around the school and the students but she is looking forward to spending time with her children — one of whom is now a substitute at EJES — her grandchildren, swimming and working in the garden. 

And no worries to the EJES community, Looney will be back in August. She says even if she won the lottery, she would still be inside the school helping out. 

“I would still be here,” Looney said. “I know what kids need and I can help them in so many different ways.”

Looney says she has no plans on slowing down. Her commitment to EJES is something that will continue for the foreseeable future. She also wants to help mentor future paraprofessionals and substitutes, teaching them how to connect to students and fit into the EJES culture.